The Refresh Button: Thoughts on the Portion of the Week: Beshalah

Thoughts on the Portion of the Week

Beshalah: Exodus 13:17-17:16

January 28, 2010  13 Shevat 5770

New York Times Journalist Matt Bai writing about the Obama a year after his inaugural notes how the national political alignment has changed in such a short time.

The constantly changing political reallignments “reflect our attitudes about permanence in a society that judges its digital TVs by their “refresh rates” — that is, the number of times per second that the pixels on the screen rearrange themselves to create a more eye-popping picture than the one that just existed. In an accelerated culture, our loyalties toward just about everything — laundry detergents, celebrities, even churches and spouses — transfer more readily than our grandparents could have imagined. Now we dispose of phone carriers and cash-back credit cards from one month to the next, forever in search of some better deal.”

The sense of impermanence of things constantly changing is a unique and unnerving aspect of our current reality.  In this week’s portion the Torah describes a very different generation that is struggling with rapid change of a different sort.  And they (Bnei Yisrael)went three days in the wilderness.  And they did not find water.”   (Exodus 15:22)  This verse comes shortly after the Torah’s description of the miracle of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the earlier liberation of Bnei Yisrael from slavery through God’s 10 plagues.  The generation of the wilderness cannot find water after successive days of astonishing miracles.  They come to the bitter waters of Marah and  complain “What shall we drink?”

Commentaries suggest that God had taken a break from doing miracles for three days after the big one at the Sea of Reeds.  The absence of miracles and the awareness of scarcity in the wilderness cause the people to panic.  They have become habituated to miracles, so that when there is a pause or cessation an intense anxiety settles in.  God, it appears, had stepped away from the ‘refresh miracle’ button.   

Bnei Israel has trouble adapting to God’s self imposed ‘time out’ of miracles. Our generation has trouble when we don’t have access to the refresh button.  The refresh button provides our moment by moment miracles of new information, videos, pictures, and blogposts.  Modern panic is the disorientation caused by quiet, or standing still, of lack of movement, of the unchanging screen. 

We live in the great age of distraction, but it is not a distraction that we spurn.  We welcome it and we suffer withdrawal when it is not available to us.  As the generation of the wilderness was addicted to God’s miracles, so we are addicted to our technological induced distractedness. 

In the generation of the wilderness, Moshe had to wean Bnei Israel from the expectation of miracles.  Astute commentators like Richard Elliot Friedmann, suggest that the entire Torah is a text which moves away from depicting God as the author of miracles.   The issue is how to create a God fearing person who does not crave for constant divine intervention. 

Our challenge today is different.  We must find ways to wean ourselves from our reliance on the refresh button.  We must give time for things to blossom, for projects to yield fruit, for processes to mature.  This is true in our lives and also true in the political life of our communities and our nation. 

 Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

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